The Exciting History of Carbon Paper!

What Is It?

Carbon paper is thin paper coated with a mixture of wax and pigment, that is used between two sheets of ordinary paper to make one or more copies of an original document.

When Was It Invented And Why?

The exact origin of carbon paper is somewhat uncertain. The first documented use of the term "carbonated paper" was in 1806, when an Englishman, named Ralph Wedgwood, issued a patent for his "Stylographic Writer." However, Pellegrino Turri had invented a typewriting machine in Italy by at least 1808, and since "black paper" was essential for the operation of his machine, he must have perfected his form of carbon paper at virtually the same time as Wedgwood, if not before (Adler, 1973). Interestingly, both men invented their "carbon paper" as a means to an end; they were both trying to help blind people write through the use of a machine, and the "black paper" was really just a substitute for ink.

In its original form Wedgwood's "Stylographic Writer" was intended to help the blind write through the use of a metal stylus instead of a quill. A piece of paper soaked in printer's ink and dried, was then placed between two sheets of writing paper in order to transfer a copy onto the bottom sheet. Horizontal metal wires on the writing-board acted as feeler-guides for the stylus and presumably helped the blind to write.

[Although invented in 1803, the steel pen only became common around the middle of the nineteenth century; the quill was still in use at the end of the century, and remained the symbol of the handwriting age. First introduced in the laborious days of copying manuscripts in monasteries about the seventh century, the quill was the civilised world's writing tool for a thousand years or more (Proudfoot, 1972).]

Little Demand At First

A few years later, Wedgwood developed the idea into a method of making copies of private or business letters and other documents. These copies were made at the time of writing and relied on the ink-impregnated paper, which Wedgwood called "carbonated paper." The writer wrote with a metal stylus on a sheet of paper thin enough to be transparent, using one of the carbon sheets so as to obtain a black copy on another sheet of paper placed underneath. This other sheet of paper was a good quality writing paper and the "copy" on it formed the original for sending out. The retained copy was in reverse on the underside of the transparent top sheet, but since the paper was very thin (what we know today as "tissue" paper) it could be read from the other side where it appeared the correct way round.

Eventually a company was formed to market Wedgwood's technique, but although the company prospered and many "Writers" were sold, Wedgwood's process was not adopted by many businesses. There was still plenty of time, money and labour to handle office work, and businessmen generally preferred their outgoing letters to be written in ink, fearing that such an easy copying process would result in wholesale forgery. In addition, unlike James Watt's copying method of 1780, which developed into the letter-copying book and became standard procedure in the 1870s, carbon copies were not admissible in court.

Despite A Passionate Past

Pellegrino Turri had very personal reasons for developing carbon paper. He fell in love with a young woman, the Countess Carolina Fantoni, who had become blind "in the flower of her youth and beauty" (Adler, 1973), and Turri resolved to build her a machine that would enable her to correspond with her friends (including him) in private. Although the machine he constructed no longer exists, several of the Countess' letters do, and from her correspondence it is clear that Turri's machine combined carbon paper and the typewriter in a way that did not become prevalent for another 65 years.

[On November 6, 1808 the Countess wrote "I am desperate because I find myself almost without black paper." The "black paper" was prepared by Turri, who was the Countess' only source of supply, and although she preserved his machine carefully ("I will never forget that it is a precious gift made by you"), Turri's typewriter disappeared after being returned to his son upon the Countess' death in 1841 (Adler, 1973).]

But An American Gets "The Vision Thing"

By 1823 Cyrus P. Dakin of Concord, Massachusetts, was making carbon paper similar to Wedgwood's, and selling it exclusively to the Associated Press. Forty-eight years later, the same Associated Press was covering the balloon ascent of Lebbeus H. Rogers; a promotional stunt in Cincinnati for the biscuit and grocery firm of which Rogers had just been made a partner. During an interview in the newspaper offices after the flight, Rogers happened to see Dakin's carbon paper and immediately saw its commercial potential for the copying of office documents. The firm of L.H. Rogers & Co. was immediately founded in New York, and in 1870 achieved its first major sale ($1,500) to the United States War Department (Sheridan, 1991). However, it was not until 1872 and the development of a practical typewriter for commercial office use (the Sholes and Glidden typewriter), that Rogers' vision was proven correct.

And The Typewriter Provided The Perfect Application

For the first time a good copy could be produced at the same time as a good original. Whereas carbon paper produced a good original with a pen or pencil, it did not always provide a good copy (carbon paper required adequate pressure in order to provide both); and although a metal stylus could give a good black copy, it did not produce a very legible original. The typewriter, on the other hand, produced excellent originals and copies, and carbon copying on the typewriter progressively became standard practice in the office.

Originally carbon paper was made entirely by hand. A mixture of carbon black (a pigment) and oil in naphtha (a solvent) was applied to sheets of paper using a wide brush. Eventually, Rogers' company developed the first carbon-coating machine, and introduced the use of hot wax applied by rollers to replace the messy oil applied by brush. In this way modern one-sided carbon paper came to be made in a variety of qualities (Proudfoot, 1972). Rogers went on to produce the first typewriter ribbons (essentially long thin strips of carbon paper), and after searching the world for material with the right texture, marketed typewriter ribbons wound on spools and packed in individual boxes, which he sold along with his packages of carbon paper.

As Needs Changed Disadvantages Became Apparent

One of the disadvantages of carbon paper was that no matter how good the paper or the writer's technique, it could only ever produce a limited number of copies. Given the continued growth of business and its need for better communication, including the development of advertising, a means of unlimited copying became increasingly necessary. This requirement led to the development of the stencil duplicator (the best known was probably David Gestetner's Cyclostyle, patented in 1880) and other similar inventions, all of which became alternatives to carbon paper (given the huge demand for all types of copying processes at this time, demand for carbon paper was not immediately affected by the introduction of these other methods).

From the very beginning however, carbon paper could only produce copies of out-going correspondence (the stencil duplicator had this disadvantage as well); if copies were needed of incoming documents, they still had to be copied by hand. This problem was not solved until the middle of the twentieth century, when xerography became commercially available in the form of the photocopier (Proudfoot, 1972). The invention of the photocopier began the decline in demand for carbon paper that has continued to the present day.

And Eventually Carbon Paper Began To Decline

Although the photocopier probably struck the biggest blow to carbon paper and other early methods of copying, a technology was developed around the same time with the potential to eliminate carbon paper entirely. NCR, or No Carbon Required paper, was developed by the National Cash Register Company in 1954 (Nielsen, 1983). This process relied on the pressure of a pen or typewriter to induce a chemical reaction between different coatings on adjacent sheets of paper. The original was produced by the pen or typewriter, while the chemical reaction left a blue copy sharply delineated on subsequent pages. NCR is ideal for business forms produced in large quantities, but is not economical for small applications. Consequently, it has yet to replace carbon paper completely.

But Not Without Leaving Its Mark!

Carbon paper is still commercially available today (1995). However, its use has declined significantly in the last 20 years, despite the proliferation of copying in the modern office over the same period. Perhaps it will continue to be used until the "paperless office" becomes a reality, or perhaps it will always be ideal for some applications. Regardless of its ultimate fate, carbon paper has already left its mark on one of the most recent technologies to enter the workplace: many electronic mail computer programs (Email) include the abbreviation "cc" to indicate the recipients of a "carbon copy" of the electronic message.


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© 1995 Kevin M. Laurence
E-mail: Kevin Laurence

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